By Lawrence E. McCullough
Immigration — legal and illegal — affects every aspect of life in every corner of the United States. It is imperative for national security and economic development that we make it work to our advantage.
The United States accepts more legal immigrants as permanent residents than the rest of the world combined. According to 2010 U.S. Census Bureau data, there are a little less than 40 million foreign-born residents in the United States, accounting for 12.5 percent of the total U.S. population and 16 percent of the labor force.
In New Jersey, immigrants make up 28 percent of the state’s workforce — including 40 percent of our scientists and engineers with higher degrees. A 2009 Governor’s Advisory Panel on Immigrant Policy found that one-fifth of New Jersey businesses are owned by immigrant entrepreneurs, accounting for nearly one-fourth of the state’s gross earnings.
The fundamental immigration problem America needs to solve is not how to keep people out, but how to more successfully and rapidly integrate them when they arrive.
We can begin by bolstering two current strategies that have proved to accelerate immigrant integration: newcomer schools for youth and expanded citizenship classes for adults.
Since the 1980s, many public school districts have offered voluntary special programs called “newcomer schools” that provide intensive education designed to help newly arrived students transition into the mainstream education system and general American life.
Courses consist of English instruction, practical skills training and cultural literacy and are available for grades K-12. Thousands of citizenship classes for adults are found across the country in public libraries, schools, churches, community centers and private nonprofit groups. Their curricula concentrate on preparing immigrants for the U.S. Citizenship Test.
Why not streamline the assimilation process by combining these two disparate endeavors into a coordinated nationwide network of “New Citizen Schools” to provide immigrants of any age with the basic information they need to become more productive Americans more quickly?
The New Citizen Schools could be housed within the existing educational structure of the nearly 1,200 community colleges that already offer quality English as a Second Language classes and job-training programs, as well as an ethnically diverse student body.
Funding would come from a base of federal, state and county education budget allotments, supplemented by contributions from private foundations and American businesses and their affiliated trade associations that profit from a large employment of immigrant labor, be it blue- or white-collar, high-tech or agriculture.
The New Citizen Schools would also work closely with a revamped guest worker program offering immigrants what the guest worker program does not: genuine access to education and economic mobility and legal oversight to prevent abuses by employers or criminals.
America must secure its borders and citizenry. But more and higher fences are not the answer. The New Citizen Schools would lay the groundwork for the only real security: transforming immigrants into citizens who embrace the core values of the American social idea and providing opportunity to attain the American economic dream.
The chief capital assets of a 21st-century economy are its people. America must have workers who are educated, skilled, healthy and — most important — emotionally committed to serving the national interest. We want workers motivated to add net value to the social and political system they share with millions of others.
Successful economies of the future will depend not just on raw labor but on the inspired, inventive business visioning of workers and entrepreneurs seeking better ways to accomplish more in a constantly evolving global marketplace.
The foundation for 19th- and 20th-century American economic growth was forged by a massive combination of private/public investment in education, industry and transportation.
In decades to come, a similar scale of concentrated investment should be applied toward integrating the immigrant worker, who embodies the nation’s most adaptable and promising economic resource.
Lawrence E. McCullough is media director for the Hall Institute of Public Policy-New Jersey (hallnj.org).
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